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Alternatives to Metanarrative in the Work of Julian Barnes

University of Nottingham


This paper examines Julian Barnes’s ambivalence towards the postmodern literary tradition in novels which both exhibit Lyotard’s “incredulity towards metanarratives,” and yet are predicated upon the need for meaning through legitimating narratives. Flaubert’s Parrot, A History of the World in 10 Chapters and England, England could all be described as literary detective novels, as in each the central consciousness is driven by the twin desires to reject delusion and pursue truth. The alleged reliability of the narrators is thus part of Barnes’s attempt to resist the beguiling relativity which he considers to be a pernicious element of the postmodern mentality. The writer’s problematisation of truth, authenticity and morality in his historical narratives leads to a paradoxical conclusion which both wistfully acknowledges the indeterminacy of objective truth and yet insists that we believe in it anyway. Through an application of the theories of Michael Riffaterre in Fictional Truth, I argue that Barnes’s chameleonic form is suffused with ethical and epistemological significance which together make up an authorial argument in favour of literature as the medium which tells us the most truth about life.


Keywords: meta-narrative, history, postmodernism, Michael Riffaterre, Gustave Flaubert, narratology, ethics, metafiction, pure story



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